The progress made by Afghan forces in taking the security lead from allied troops has been offset by Afghanistan's deep-rooted climate of corruption that threatens to derail efforts to leave behind a fledgling democracy capable of holding off the Taliban, the Pentagon said Tuesday in a report to Congress.
U.S. Defense and State Department officials in the 181-page report described failed efforts by the international community and the Afghan government "to reduce corruption that threatens the sustainability of the Afghan state."
In the past six months, "the Afghan governments counter-corruption efforts have shown no substantial progress, apart from the public acknowledgment that large-scale corruption exists," according to the semi-annual report titled "Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan."
"Corruption is a critical concern. It has been and remains one," said Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Security Affairs.
"Historically, there has been some level of corruption" in all aspects of Afghan society, Lavoy said. The problem is now symbolized by recent Afghan efforts to charge the U.S. $70 million in fees to move its equipment out of the country.
Curbing corruption in the government, and especially in the military, was a priority for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his counterparts in Afghanistan, Lavoy said at a Pentagon briefing on the report.
Possibly anticipating a negative report, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, granted an interview with the New York Times. He attempted to counter growing opposition to the war in the U.S. and make the case for a continued U.S. presence as vital to Afghanistan's ability to survive against the Taliban.
The transfer of the security lead to Afghan forces and the plan to withdraw all U.S. and NATO combat troops by the end of 2014 meant that allied casualties will continue to decrease since "the actual fighting on a day-to-day basis will all be done by Afghans," Dunford told the newspaper.
Dunford stressed the need for a Bilateral Security Agreement with the Afghans to allow for a training and advisory international force to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
"Afghan forces, at the end of 2014, won't be completely independent," Dunford told the Times. "Our presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable."
Karzai recently broke off talks with the U.S. on a post-2014 presence in response to the botched effort by the U.S. to initiate peace talks with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar.
The report, known as the "1230 Report" for Section 1230 of the National Defense Authorization Act, also noted that progress in Afghanistan was dependent on agreement for a post-2014 residual force.
"Assessing whether the gains to date will be sustainable will be difficult to do until the exact size and structure of the post 2014 U.S. and NATO presence is determined. Another key factor will be whether a Bilateral Security Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan is reached," the report said.
The Taliban "is now less capable, less popular and less of an existential threat to the Afghan government than in 2011," the report said.
"Nonetheless, insurgents maintained influence in many rural areas that serve as platforms to attack urban areas and were able to carry out attacks with roughly the same frequency as in 2012," the report said. "The insurgency can also use its sanctuaries in Pakistan to prevent its decisive defeat in the near term."
With Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) now conducting nearly all combat operations, the 12-year-old war "has shifted into a fundamentally new phase," the report said.
However, corruption within ANSF itself "poses a major threat to the success of the ISAF mission and the viability of the Afghan state," the report said.
"Ethnically and politically-based patronage can be found throughout the Afghan National Army," the report said. "Commomplace illicit ANA activities include theft of fuel and expendable supplies/commodities, pay-for-position scams, and localized collusion with both insurgent entities and narcotics traffickers," the report said.
Despite the pervasiveness of corruption, "the task we have today is to consolidate the gains we've made" and to prepare the way for national elections in April 2014 in which Karzai has maintained that he will not be a candidate, Lavoy said. The political contests will be the key test of the long-term viability of the ANSF, Lavoy said.